Go back to Jazz Jackrabbit

Written by: Stoo

Date posted: June 4, 2020

Whenever discussing platform games on the PC I invariably follow the same path: lament the poor selection in general, and remark on shoddy ports from other systems. Then point to Apogee software as our best source of home-grown titles, with fondly remembered favourites like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. Yet fine as these games were I’d have to admit they were all a bit dorky in comparison to plaformers on consoles or the Amiga.

Part of the problem is the technology. Most Apogee games in the early 90s used the old and outdated EGA standard, capable of displaying just 16 colours simultaneously (from a palette of 64). Also, some games of this period lacked full support for sound cards, falling back on the PC’s basic bleeper. These were justifiable decisions; not everyone possessed the latest graphics and sound hardware, so Apogee stuck to established and widespread standards. Still, their games couldn’t wholly escape the impression of being something improvised for a boring workstation, that was more suited to databases and spreadsheets.

Another company releasing action and arcade style games back then, which I tend to gloss over in my reminiscing, was Epic. Or Epic Megagames as they were known in their early, pre-Unreal days. In 1994 they released Jazz Jackrabbit, their direct challenge to the plethora of platformers on 16-bit systems.

By this point EGA was pretty much dead even in shareware and Jazz uses VGA, the vastly superior standard that basically put the PC pn a par with more gaming-oriented devices. VGA boasts a palette of (pause for hasty wiki search) about a quarter of a million colours, with 256 on screen at any one time, and Jazz puts them to good use. We’re presented with a wide range of vibrant themes for each level, from overgrown stone ruins to twilight cityscapes. One level is set inside a giant computer, another amongst gleaming caverns of golden treasure.

Jazz is also fast. Really fast in fact, showing off the silky-smooth scrolling along the way. Between this and the “animal with attitude” mascot, Epic clearly had an eye on Sonic the Hedgehog. The key difference setting him apart from Sega’s champion, is using guns instead of jumping on enemies. The selection isn’t huge but you get regular blaster, larger shot, bouncing grenades and missiles with a spread.

His speed does end up working against him occasionally, when I found myself blundering into enemies quicker than I could react and shoot. The large sprite also contributes to the issue, I think – it means the visible area around you is proportionally smaller. Anyway there were times when low on health, that I found myself creeping forwards hammering the fire button which I don’t think is the intended style of play.

Some levels throw in various features that affect your movement – magnets pulling you to the ceiling or Sonic-style springs. These do help add a bit of variety to the proceedings, without becoming too frustrating. As for the boss fights, I beat at least three by standing in a place they couldn’t reach, which is probably bad design but I have no patience for bosses these days anyway.

I should also mention the excellent soundtrack, which I think is another example of Epic’s penchant for tracker music. It certainly sounds a step more advanced than the Adlib music we usually heard in early 90s PC gaming, more like something out of the demo scene.

I played my way through most of the original game; fell a bit short of finishing between the demands of parenthood and my ongoing half-decade shame that is Might and Magic 6. Like Rik I felt that, by that point, I think I’d seen most of what the game had to offer.

Ultimately I still prefer the best of Apogee’s lineup. Commander Keen 4 in particular is an adeptly constructed game and I find the artwork to be highly appealing despite the limitations of EGA. Keen himself is a sincerely likeable hero, whereas Jazz is trying a bit too hard to be cool. Also I’m not sure his speed, pushed to its full extent, is really useful; I usually blunder haplessly into spikes, then wonder if I should backtrack to see if I missed anything (both criticisms I would level at Sonic also).

Still, this one is definitely an upper-tier platformer. Rik thought it falls a bit short of the sort of polish we associate with console games; I’d say it approaches them pretty closely. Perhaps even the flashy graphics couldn’t totally escape a little latent shareware dorkyness. Still it’s likely that your Megadrive-owning school friends would have demanded a go, exactly what Epic were aiming for. So overall I’d say it’s one of the most significant games of this sort for PC, and certainly worth a few ££ on gog.com